Wrestling with Ourselves: Jacob and the Angel
Jacob’s wrestling with the angel is one of the most well-known Biblical scenes in popular art and culture. From Jacob Epstein and Paul Gaugin to bell hooks and Sheila Heti, this story has inspired many artists and writers. Jacob’s wrestling has personal resonance for me as well, as I have come to see my life in more complex terms and ‘wrestling’ with conflicting ideals or expectations has become an apt metaphor. The story of Jacob and the angel is one of internal and external struggles, the moments when we are forced to confront what we have been hiding from. It articulates a sense of angst and existential crisis, often associated with a stereotypically Jewish anxiety. However, it also represents a more universal struggle with our bodies and our minds, one that can be both uncomfortable and surprisingly intimate.
The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel appears relatively early in the parshah but emerges from a context of pre-existing tensions and conflicts. At the beginning of Parshat Vayishlach, Jacob is in a state of fear and distress when he hears that his brother Esau is approaching with four hundred men, after years of estrangement since he stole Esau’s birthright. The parshah states that “in his anxiety” Jacob divided his camp in half so that if Esau attacked one camp, the other could escape. This positions Jacob as an anxious character, whose fear of the worst consequences leads him to pre-emptively take steps to protect himself from future danger. This desire to avoid conflict has already led him to delay fulfilling God’s instruction to “Return to your land and to your birthplace”. Avivah Zornberg, drawing on her often psychoanalytic approach to Biblical interpretation in her book Genesis: The Beginnings of Desire, argues that the overarching theme of Vayishlach is Jacob’s desire for wholeness – his wish for completion by returning to the past and reconciling with his brother, but simultaneously a frustrated need for control over an uncertain present.
Jacob’s unease with his reality reflects the cognitive distortion at the root of anxiety – a lack of acceptance of life’s imperfections and the expectation that things should be otherwise. In this way, Jacob can be seen to embody the stereotype of Jewish anxiety. Daniel Smith argues that the trope of Jewish anxiety is an object of both “the anti-Semitic imagination of Jewish inferiority” and “Jewish self-congratulation” over our own intellectual ability and achievement, in his article ‘Do the Jews Own Anxiety?’. An anti-Semitic interpretation could frame Jacob’s cerebral character as an inferior counterpart to a more masculine virility – a dynamic that shaped his relationship with his brother Esau, but also one that structures a harmful dichotomy between Jews and gentiles. A more celebratory reading (which Smith shows has been posited by Jews themselves) positions anxiety as the necessary consequence of a developed intellect and scepticism, the supposed key to Jewish excellence.
However, at this point in his life, Jacob does not celebrate his ruminative tendencies but rather feels a sense of guilt or regret at his inaction, saying “I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth” that God has given him. Jacob suffers under his failure to act on the vow to return to his birthplace. His paralysis is compounded by a sense of being preceded, as the second-born twin and the last of the forefathers. This counters the intertwining of genius and anxiety so prevalent in analyses of Jewish success, showing that the weight of ancestral legacy can be immobilising as well as inspiring.
The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is therefore striking as it throws the thoughtful Jacob into action. Jacob often chooses to defer and delay, to hang back and plan his next move. This encounter forces Jacob to confront his inaction. The interaction is cryptic, with Jacob’s assailant revealed to be not, as first described, a man, but an angel, who refuses to tell Jacob their name. The nature of the wrestling between these two figures is also ambiguous. This is a passionate, if not violent, encounter, involving an all-night struggle that exhausts both participants as they fight to prevail over the other. There is an intimacy in that struggle too, due to the inherent physical closeness of wrestling, and in the moment where the angel dislocates Jacob’s hip socket. In rabbinic interpretations, this injury is often explicitly linked to sexual reproduction, such as R. Chanaya bar Yitzhak’s assertion that the angel was touching the future generations that would descend from Jacob and be persecuted in the future.
Jacob’s later embrace with Esau contains the same potential for both love and hatred – a longing for each other and the ‘missing half’ of their childhood, and a resentment stemming from the favouritism – and then betrayal – of that upbringing. Some interpretations even argue that the figure that Jacob wrestled with was Esau’s guardian angel. R. Hama bar Hanina suggests that this is alluded to later in the parshah when Jacob says to Esau “because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel”. In this framing, the wrestling acts as a means of working out the difficulties in the brothers’ relationship in advance of their meeting. The angel mirrors Jacob’s dread and fear about confronting Esau but the struggle enables Jacob to cultivate a radical empathy towards his brother, engaging with him (or at least his angel representative) as an equal partner.
There is therefore a clear mental and spiritual intimacy in the encounter, as well as a physical one. The wrestling between the figures ends with the angel renaming Jacob as Israel, because “you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed”. This asserts the importance of struggle in both spiritual and earthly relationships, in order to enable personal transformation. However, the end of the narrative implies that this is not a complete moment of change for Jacob, as it finishes with Jacob limping on his hip, still marked by his injury during the night. bell hooks analyses Jacob’s injury by the angel in the final chapter of All About Love, as part of the book’s meditation on love as a sacred practice with social importance. While she initially read the woundedness in the story as negative, her later experiences taught her that embracing our woundedness is necessary for healing and spiritual growth. In the final image of Jacob limping away, we are left with the impression that Jacob has been forced to contend with his desire for control and his guilt towards his past, but he will never fully achieve the resolution he aspires to.
As a Biblical narrative, Jacob wrestling with the angel has captured many artists’ imaginations. While it may fit well into the preoccupations of the ‘struggling artist’, it is more broadly an image that resonates with the conflicts of human experience. Jacob Epstein’s sculpture Jacob and the Angel (1940-1) embodies both these appeals. When I saw the sculpture at Tate Britain last year, its abstract shapes and interlocked arms meant I had to walk around the entire work before I had a flash of recognition. Another reason why it took me a while to identify the sculpture was that it depicts the encounter between Jacob and the angel as more of an embrace than a struggle. The figure of the angel, indicated through large alabaster slabs of wings, has his arms wrapped around Jacob’s upper back and his knees bent, suggesting he is lifting Jacob up or at least keeping him upright. Jacob slumps exhausted in the angel’s embrace, indicated by his large arms dangling with loose wrists. There is a strange intimacy between the two figures, rather than the aggression that might be imagined. The strangeness is exacerbated by both figures being surprisingly solid and substantial, compared to more conventional depictions where the angel in particular is portrayed as ethereal. This kind of epic scale reinforces the idea that this is a physical and bodily interaction, as much as a divine one.
The unorthodox style of Jacob and the Angel and Jacob Epstein’s other religiously inspired sculptures led to his own struggle for recognition from the British art establishment. As an American Jew, he was an outsider, and contravened typical, Christian artistic conventions in his depiction of religious subject matter. The British public’s perception of his sculptures as monstrous or grotesque may also be traced to Epstein’s inspiration by non-Western ‘primitive’ art, indicating a wider societal prejudice against the cultural other. Public commentary at the time of Jacob and the Angel’s exhibition, like the Daily Mail headline in 1942 ‘Is this a miracle or a monstrosity?’, questioned its value and framed it as controversial. This led the sculpture to be displayed in seaside ‘sensational’ shows and waxworks for years, rather than in the world of ‘high art’. The exhibition of Jacob and the Angel at Blackpool promenade was even advertised on signs as ‘Adults Only’, positioning it as explicit and sexual.
The controversy and sensationalism generated by Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel in the 1940s reflects both the aversion to, and appeal of, possibilities for the erotic in this narrative. This is not just intimacy and eroticism in a sexual sense – although commentators like Simon Hallonsten have read the wrestling as a sexual act – but also as closeness and vitality, expressed in raw and sometimes surprising ways. The suggestion in Epstein’s sculpture that Jacob could be embraced by the angel already challenges traditional notions of masculinity and strength in its exposure of Jacob’s human vulnerability. In the mixture of horror and fascination directed at Epstein’s ‘primitive’ sculpture, we see the social response to the ‘primitive’ in ourselves, the bare humanity exposed in struggle.
Responses to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and its artistic depictions therefore demonstrate its unique capacity to open up discussion of psychological and spiritual complexities. My original reading of this narrative was that the wrestling represents the kind of existential angst and crisis that constitutes anxiety. However, exploring its scholarly and artistic interpretations revealed to me that this anxiety is more acutely captured in Jacob’s inaction before the event. If spiritual, relational or mental struggles are tied to inaction or passivity, then they need to be addressed through their confrontation. As bell hooks writes of Jacob and the angel in All About Love, “Constructive confrontation aids our healing” but she acknowledges the continual challenges and work required of this endeavour. This wrestling will not achieve completion or wholeness- as the sun rises, Jacob still limps- but it promises possibilities for transformation.